COMMENTARY: The Great Tate Bricks Controversy of 1976


It’s a pile of something all right:

A vintage photo of Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII”


“The sensation of these pieces was that they come above your ankles…”
-Carl Andre

“Art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art.”

I imagine the tour conversation depicted above probably went something like this:
CURATOR: “Behold, a three-dimensional manifestation of essential modular forms; a configuration of material purity actualized in an industrial aesthetic.”
PUBLIC: “But that’s just a stack of bricks on the floor.”
CURATOR: “You obviously do not understand art.”
In 1976 London there was some tabloid excitement about the Tate Museum’s tax-payer funded purchase and display of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII-a group of 120 bricks arranged in a rectangle.
The piece was originally part of an installation in New York in 1966. When no one bought the work at the time, the artist returned the bricks to the supplier. He had to obtain new bricks for the Tate. It reportedly cost the tax payers about $12,000.00, the equivalent of about $50,000.00 today.  A real bargain, considering the seven figure boondoggles the art market currently traffics in.
This piece has since been vandalized with paint, mocked in editorial cartoons, and met with general bewilderment. This hostility is seen as a badge of honor by elitist cultural types.
But the limitations of material as message render the piece itself as dull and inert. Without lots of art blather to support it, the piece is simply a stack of bricks out of its normal context, without any inherent interest of its own.
Museums have only gotten worse since then. The poor judgement and self-serving cronyism of the arts establishment has made the modern museum into a void of overpriced. repackaged Dada. Sadly, Equivalent VIII and the way it was handled  was a harbinger, not of the direction of art, but of the power games and corruption of our compromised cultural institutions.
Carl Andre went on to be put on trial for the murder of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta,  who somehow fell out of a 34 story window during a domestic dispute over art career jealousy. Andre was cleared on the charges due to reasonable doubt.
The piece itself is still providing a trip hazard at the Tate Modern Museum.
“Art is the exclusion of the unnecessary.” – Carl Andre
That’s a great perspective. Let’s start by excluding misplaced stacks of bricks cluttering up what could be useful museum space.


12 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: The Great Tate Bricks Controversy of 1976

  1. well penned post.

    “Art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn’t art.” That just about says it all. I’m sure we can all conjure up examples of the horrid pieces that galleries offer up to the public. The one that has stuck in my mind was being on the Thursday Art Walk in Seattle over a decade ago, walking into one of the chi chi galleries and seeing a pyramid made of toilet paper rolls. It had a five figure price tag. My friends and I started to loudly point out the fact that it merely a stack of toilet paper rolls and having a good laugh when the staff moved in to get us out of there.

    “This hostility is seen as a badge of honor by elitist cultural types.” I suppose what is so frustrating is you can’t debate someone when they refuse to accept there is a debate. It is another form of anti-intellectualism within the art community that feeds “the power games and corruption of our compromised cultural institutions.” Whether at places at the Iowa Writer’s Program or in the circles around the “Theater” in New York or art scene in Seattle, those who succeed seem to be the one’s drawn not to art, but to power, to the ability to manipulate and be kings of their little hills.

  2. Thanks! They’ve created a tiny bubble where their influence is supreme, but which looks ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t embraced the indoctrination. We’re going to pop that bubble and then nothing will be left for them but the looking ridiculous part.

  3. I think this is part of a series, each with 120 bricks, but making a different shape depending on how the bricks are laid. Probably a brick worker would find this the most ridiculous. You could as easily cut someone’s hair and leave the hair where it lay as sculpture. Cut several peoples hair and you have a series. I can envision it, and even envision being able to see it as priceless art. I can envision being reluctant to completely dismiss it, even though I just pulled it out of my ass as a bullshit example. Imagine hair from say 8 different people on a gallery floor, each cordoned off with a painted boundary, and not being allowed to disturb where the locks had fallen. It could be considered one of the greatest works of the last century. If I created a faux exhibit, documented it, and instructed teachers to teach their college students that it was a real and important work, I don’t doubt that they would as readily accept it as Andre’s bricks.

    I don’t really mind this kind of art, and I don’t say it’s not art. It is a kind of clever commentary on art, and an exploration of subtle shifting of perspective. However, in this case, that’s about all it is. The problem for me is that this kind of work is classified as “visual art”, while being no more visually interesting than an un-primed canvas, and is considered superior to visual art and a rebuttal to it. That is the real pisser. This is a different genre of art which is mildly interesting if you go in for that sort of dry wit and pseudo-philosophical statements. But the idea that this kind of art replaces visual art, and renders it obsolete, is as ridiculous and offensive as saying it replaces music.

    People are really confused about this, and think that anything which can be seen is visual art, even if it has far more in common with other genres (ex., performance has much more to do with theater, and “video” has much more to do with film). This piece, of course, is a “sculpture”, a post-minimalist, conceptual sculpture. The important thing is the IDEA. And that is NOT the case with visual art, just as it is not the case with cuisine. If one values visual art for the ideas, ones really missing out. Imagine valuing classic rock primarily for the ideas of what it is and how it fits into the history of music.

    So, this kind of art reminds me of puzzles or optical illusions: little tricks or surprises that give you a little something to ponder. But it has very little to do with visual art, because there’s really nothing to look at in depth. If feel about it like I do about, say, music played on wine glasses, or clever words you could make out of letters on early calculators. It’s worth a nod, a “puuuhhh”, an gaffaw, a raised eyebrow, or just one of they many faces Trump can make in 10 seconds

    If I really thought it were any good at all, I’d just go out and buy the same bricks and reproduce it. And THAT is the hysterical thing about this – a gallery or museum or anyone buying something they could recreate identically themselves for under $100.

    Meanwhile real visual art is scoffed at, and pieces artists spent hundreds of hours on are considered toothless.

  4. Good points here. What I see though is a paradigm shift where such “efforts” are culturally unacceptable, and are recognized as failures. I am prepared to say it is not art, that it is an inadequate attempt that does not reach the threshold of art. The “questioning of” and “commenting on the nature of art” dodges that have propped up charlatans since Duchamp is a dysfunctional approach. It’s a lie and cheat and I say no more, it’s just not good enough. Others may not agree, but I find in compelling that such shenanigans can only survive in the tiny art bubble, separate from the vast majority of humanity. We have an instinctual need for and appreciation of creative expression and works like this don’t engage on that fundamental level. Such intellectual approximations of art do not fulfill the function of art, and no amount of justification can move the spirit.

  5. I had to laugh. I won’t/can’t address the artistic merit of this piece, but as my family has nearly 90 yrs of masonry experience, I can guess what my fathers response would be to this question; What does this exhibit say to you? His reply……”Work”.

  6. I will state that this is CON ART not art. I agree with Eric Wayne that it’s another genre because without the curator or words, it cannot be seen as anything but what it is. In other words, it depends on the manipulative rhetoric of the establishment to give it value making them co-creators worthy of a percentage of the sales. All in all, post neo DADA hacks require little effort and skill and the most disturbing, vision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s